Stan: Whitehorse, July 23, 2005
We left Tok Wednesday, drove 220 miles and stopped at destruction bay, where we spent the night. Thursday we came on to Whitehorse and arrived around noon. A full circle; on June 22, we left Whitehorse, heading for Dawson City. The round trip, Whitehorse and back, took 36 days, 33 were spent in Alaska.
The 33 days in Alaska were mostly relaxing and enjoyable. Even rainy days didn’t dampen our spirits much. I get cold in wet weather and may get a little cranky. So, on the worst days, we hang out in the trailer, work on the journal, read, and if we have cable, catch up on the news.
I can’t help myself; I have to make one more dig at the Alaskan highways. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from traveling to Alaska because of the roads, but our trip would have been so much more enjoyable, if highways weren’t so bumpy and unpleasant to drive on. It’s ironic, I suppose, the last 90 miles of our drive through Alaska, were over some of the worst stretches we had encountered. The trip from Tok to Destruction Bay was not the best possible way to finish an otherwise pleasurable trip through Alaska. I have to add; the highway from the Alaska/Yukon boarder to Destruction Bay was no better. I was surprised. I had expected Yukon roads would be better.
After a good nights rest, the remaining 200 miles to Whitehorse, made up for the previous day’s roller coaster ride. The roads are newer, better maintained, and the scenery was great all the way. I understand why the roads suffer from frost heave. It’s easer to build and repair roads that aren’t built on permafrost. It’s still exasperating; I have to concentrate so much on driving that I miss much of the scenery.
Anyway, we’ve done Alaska, or at least a small piece of it. I had expected bad roads; Alaska now replaces North Carolina as the state I love to hate for their lousy roads. I knew the scenery would be memorable, and it was. We were constantly surprised by the variety and beauty of Alaskan scenery. I’ve taken more than 4,000 pictures so far, many of those in Alaska. They will help us kick start or recollections of this very memorable trip in the years to come.
Alaska calls it self the last frontier and attracts many people that take that slogan to heart. We met those that came to Alaska out of curiosity, or to visit, and never left. They come looking for freedom, and adventure. Some find all or part of their dream, others don’t, but stay anyway.
When we took the bus ride into Denali National Park, we didn’t want to leave Sheila for 10 hours so we hired a woman recommended by the RV park, as a reliable dog setter. She was from Minnesota and her husband was from Wisconsin. They both came to Alaska to see what it was all about and stayed. Now they spend eight months during the winter, trapping. He had obtained a trapping permit from the BLM which allows him to build a cabin and trap. They take their two children, four and twelve with them. The cabin is 120 miles from Cantwell in the way back out back. You find the cabin by going 62 miles East on the Denali Highway, then, turn north into the mountains for another 40 miles. Each fall, it takes four trips from Cantwell to provision the cabin for their winter’s stay. She makes hats, mittens and other items from the furs, to sell during the summer months. I don’t know what he does, other than trapping. It seems like a subsistence life style to me. She home schools the children, using a recognized home study corse, and acts like life is just fine. Many people appear to live on meager incomes, by trapping, working construction during summer or whatever they can find. But I didn’t talk to anyone that wanted to return to the lower 48. They are, after all, living independently in the last frontier.
I liked everyone I met. They have a bit of a chip on their shoulder when it comes to government regulations, and their crazy drivers. They are right about one thing; Alaska does have the definite feel of a frontier, once you’re in the countryside. I felt like some places’ that we visited were isolated and too damned remote, at least for me. It could be my imagination though; the cell phone worked much of the time in Alaska, but very seldom gets any signal in Canada.
In rural Alaska, bar ditches on either side of highways, are used by ATV’s and dirt bikes. They kick up big clouds of dust, which can be hazardous for drivers on the main highway. ATV’s are a principal mode of transportation in the countryside, just about anywhere, really, except for city streets.
Johnna and I made the trek to Alaska because it was on our agenda of places we wanted to see. Many of or fellow travelers, on the other hand, are here for the fishing, especially salmon. Some come back year after year just for that. Alaska seems to be geared to the outdoors type, hikers, fishers, boaters etc. We like the scenery, museums, and historical sites. I don’t think we’ll make another drive up here again just for that. Some time in the future, we may take a cruise, or fly up and rent some kind of vehicle to revisit our favorite spots. But for now I’m satisfied with our journey and think it was fairly complete.
Friday, July 29
We drove to Skagway and road the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. The day was overcast and chilly but it’s a scenic drive. I stopped to take a picture at just about every pull out, and there are many. Once thru Carcross, the highway follows a series of lakes to White Pass. We started to pull the trailer to Skagway, but were deterred by the last few miles into town from the pass. It’s quite a down grade (11% for 11.5 miles). The RV parks are crowded once you get there anway. Driving the 100 miles was much better, it’s easer to stop and gawk without the trailer.
Skagway, now there’s a place. The main street is lined with shops and more shops. I’ve never seen so many jewelry stores in such a short distance. The following photo shows four in one stretch, and the next block starts with one on the corner. I guess they make money. The gems and jewelry were only so so in my estimation; you could get the same stuff in any mall, or Penny’s, probably. There were some pieces by local artists that caught my eye, too pricy for me though.
Friday, there was only one cruise ship in port. Sometimes there are three or more at once, which swells the population quite a bit.
Main street Skagway is clean and well kept up. Once out of the main shopping areas, the homes are old and not that well maintained. On the way to the pass, the train passes an area that resembles a shanty town, filled with old travel trailers, broken down VW buses, tents, and whatever else that can serve as a shelter. But, for that spot, what the typical tourist sees, is picturesque and clean.
This train ride was not as much fun, or scenic, as the trip we took in Chama New Mexico. But the rail line has a lot of history, and we’ve never seen a narrow gauge rail line we disliked. My main complaint was the absence of a gondola car for those of us wanting to take a zillion pictures. On the way up I took most of my photos through the window, which has worked in the past. I could have gone out of the car and stood on the platform between cars, but that’s what everyone else wanted to do. That caused a big jam and hard stares if you didn’t relinquish a good spot fast enough; I stayed inside on the trip up. Coming back was better, only the real hardy people, or dim witted, stood out side in the cold breeze and passing showers. I spent most of the return trip on the platform and got a few acceptable photos.
We took the 3.5 hour trip to the summit and back. The summit is right on the British Columbia, Alaska border. Just before the train made it to the top, we were lectured on the dire consequences of stepping off the train and placing so much as our big toe on BC soil. We were all good and no one was hounded back to Skagway. If you were confronted by Canadian customs agents, after having to go 20 miles to find you, I’m sure it wouldn’t be at all humourous.
It was a pleasant afternoon. The story behind the train is interesting. If you want more information, go to www.wpyr.com.
Carcross Desert is the world's smallest desert and an International Biophysical Programime site for ecological studies. It is composed of sandy lake-bottom material left behind by a large glacial lake. Strong winds off Lake Bennett make it difficult for anything other than lodgepole pine, spruce and kinnikinnick to survive. kinnikinnick is a low trailing evergreen with small leathery leaves; used for tea.
Saturday July 30
We took in the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse. The exhibits are primarily of the gold rush and the development of the North West Mounted Police. One room was devoted to natural history, and geology.
The photographic record of the Whitehorse area is good. Black and white photos bring to life the gold rush days, showing how the stampeders lived and worked. There are also good pictures of the Mounties. An educational day I think, and exactly the way we like to spend an afternoon.
Mounties always get their man .... or woman.
Sunday July 31
Another day delving into the history of this area. We visited the S.S. Klondike II, a restored sternwheeler, built in 1938 to replace the Klondike I that met her demise by running aground in 1937. Both ships were built in Whitehorse by the British Yukon Navigation Company, a subsidiary of the White Pass and Yukon Route rail line. The Klondike II is shallow draft and could handle a cargo in excess of 300 tons. It carried general merchandise and a few passengers. From Whitehorse to Dawson City, down stream, took 36 hours. The return trip, upstream could take as long as five days. It was wood fired and used about a cord of wood an hour. Wood camps were established every 50 miles or so. The Klondike II had to carry only enough wood to fire the boiler for about 24 hours (24 cords).
It was refurbished as a cruise ship in an attempt to save its career as the British Navigation Company’s flag ship. Due to increased cost of operation on the Yukon, the S. S. Klondike ended her career in August of 1955.
The S. S. Klondike II was restored by Parks Canada and is designated as a National Historic Site. The restoration has been very well done. I think the ship may be in better shape now, than when it was in service.
We’ll leave Whitehorse tomorrow, stop short of Watson Lake for the night, and then start down the dreaded Cassiar Highway. The Cassiar is 400 miles of paved/ gravel roadway, connecting Yukon 1 with the major highways in southern Yukon. It has the same reputation as the Top Of The World highway. Some people say it’s OK; slow down and enjoy the scenery. Others curse it as the worst piece of god forsaken road they’ve ever been on. It well take us two days to do, so we’ll have some opinion after we’ve done it ourselves.
July 26, 2005
Took a down day in Tok. Spent part of the day setting outside and enjoying the nice weather. Temps in the 70s.
July 27, 2005
Another nice day. The stretch of highway from Tok to Destruction Bay is in very poor condition with lots of frost heaves, patches on patches, and chug holes. The highway follows the Chisana/Tanana Rivers most of the way. The ground is mostly permafrost and boggy, making it difficult to build stable roadbeds. The Mile Post Guide says that this stretch of the Alcan was the hardest to build and is the hardest to maintain. Driving this 200 miles in half a day seemed more like diving 600 miles on a long day. However, there was some nice scenery along the way. Was very happy to finally get to the Destruction Bay Lodge and RV Park in Destruction Bay near Kluane Lake.
The Kluane Kountry B.O.A.L.S. (bump on a log shapes) Shop next to rv park the drew our interest right away. There was a large collection of raw cottonwood, poplar, and spruce burl and willow sticks in front of the shop. Dubie, the gentleman who owns the shop and makes bowls, candle sticks, walking sticks, etc. was very informative about his craft and told us all about the local area. Picked out a nicely shaped log to use as a plant stand, a burl in which Stan wants to try his hand at bowl making and a willow stick for me to try my hand at whittling a walking stick.
July 28, 2005
Another mostly sunny day. The highway south of Destruction Bay is much improved. We ran into major highway construction on the south end of Kluane Lake and east of Haines Junction, but no major delay at either site. Scenic mountain views almost all the way to Whitehorse. A ride in the park compared to yesterday. Noted that the wild flowers are by and large past their prime. The grass has seeded out and is beginning to turn brown. A trace of yellow is beginning to show on the willow and aspen. A big difference from the lush green growth of a little over a month ago when a local person in Whitehorse complained to us that the fireweed had not bloomed yet. Got to the Hi Country RV Park in Whitehorse earlier than expected.
After getting set up, went to the Super Store to restock the frig and pantry. The Super Store is somewhat like a Costco and a little like a Super Walmart. Supposed to supply low cost products by providing limited service in a warehouse like building. The service was non existent, product choices were limited and prices were just as high as Walmart. You had to bag your purchases and they even charged rent on their carts. What a rip off, will not likely shop at one of these stores again. Stopped by the Whitehorse Visitors Center and made reservations to ride the excursion train from Skagway on the White Pass and & Yukon Route Railroad the next day.
July 29, 2005
Drove to Skagway to take the train ride. The South Klondike Highway runs beside the lakes that make up the head waters of the Yukon River. Lake Bennett, Nares Lake, Tagish Lake, and Tutshi Lake. Beautiful scenery all around. Kind of a sensory overload. The drive to Skagway is worth the side trip without the train ride. The landscape at the summit of White Pass is fascinating. Hundreds of pools, ponds, and small lakes surrounded by forests of stunted miniature trees and wild flowers. A real fairy land! From the summit the highway goes down an eleven mile, eleven percent grade to follow the Skagway River which empties into the Lynn Canal at Skagway. The change from the smaller trees of jack pine, lodge pole pine, & spruce forests in the Whitehorse area and the rain forest of various large trees on the coast is remarkable.
Arrived in Skagway about two hours before the train departure. Walked up and down the main business street to window shop in the many gift shops and jewelry stores which cater to the tourist trade. A large cruse ship was in port, so a lot of other people were wandering around. A lot of them were also waiting for the train excursion. The train ride was interesting in that the train travels at a much slower speed than we had moved on the highway. Therefore, one has time to take in the details of the impressive landscape. The railroad is on the opposite side of the canyon from where the highway is located giving us a different point of view of the landscape we had already viewed on our way to Skagway. The sun was shining in Skagway. We climbed up through the mist and clouds to sun again at the summit. Then back down again through the clouds to sun again on the coast. The train ride was fun, but am not sure it was worth the eighty five dollars per person. The drive was definitely worth the side trip. I think I have already said that. Highly recommend it to anyone traveling up the Alaskan Highway. Enjoyed the return trip to Whitehorse more than the trip west. I think that the scenic views are more impressive looking eastward. However, I wouldn’t want to miss the westward views either.
July 30, 2005
Took a down day to do laundry and to take in local points of interest in Whitehorse. Went to the MacBride Museum which offered interesting exhibits about the gold rush days and the transportation industry which serviced it and the mining industry which followed. Went out to the Whitehorse Fish Ladder and Dam. The Chinook Salmon run had not quite got underway. There had been only three so far this season, one went up the ladder on the 29th and two so far on this day. The peek of the run is usually in mid August. We saw about four or five chinook hanging out at the bottom of the ladder. Guess they were resting before starting the climb.
July 31, 2005
Decided to take another day in Whitehorse and tour the sternwheeler SS Klondike. This steam ship serviced the settlements from Whitehorse to Dawson City from the late 1920s until it was retired in the mid 1950s. It was a cargo ship which carried some passengers. It served as cruse ship for a short time before retirement. The National Parks Service now maintains it as a museum.
First class dining room.